10 Questions with Jose Luis – Head Sommelier at Hakkasan London
In talks with our Editor is Jose Luis Hernandez, head sommelier at Hakkasan London.
Hakkasan is known for its food, yes, but it’s also known for its impeccable selection of wine. You can’t step into Hakkasan and not swirl a glass of wine served by some of the best sommeliers.
Jose and Anna connected on their love for wine, where Jose delves into the world of being a sommelier and shares with us what it takes to be a sommelier, how his day is like, and how Hakkasan picks wine for their wine list.
Tell us a little bit about your journey as a sommelier. -What inspired you to become a sommelier?
I was introduced to the wine world by a flatmate. He was buying wine online and he used to tell me all about wine regions and grapes with great passion. At that time, I knew very little about wine but already enjoyed drinking. I was studying Hospitality Management and an opportunity at the university came up to enrol on WSET Level 2, so I did! That was the last push I need it and it has been ... years since.
What does a typical day as a head sommelier look like?
It usually starts in the office, where there are many administration tasks that I usually deal with first thing.
Stock, wine orders, menus updates, setting up new products in the system, dealing with suppliers, managers’ meetings, team training, trade tastings.
After the admin duties are complete, it's time to go to the floor and make sure that we get ready for service. A briefing with my team to ensure we are all set, check the bookings and prepare for customers’ arrival, and of course, try to have some fun while we are working.
How do you pick your team? In simpler words, what do you look for in a new hire?
I look for people with a passion for wine. They could be experienced, or they can just be junior but there is always something in common, wine passion is easy to spot on when the candidate talks about wine.
I always try to look for during an interview what made them start a career as a sommelier. There are many interesting histories, many ‘wine bugs’ around.
How do you keep your team motivated to work?
I’m lucky enough to have a very young and enthusiastic team, so it is easy, they love what they do.
In addition, I like to organise blind tastings, invite to the restaurant winemakers and give them the opportunity to introduce their wines and wineries to the team.
I like to get the team involved in almost all aspects of the operation, they run training for the rest of their colleagues, they attend trade tastings and they share their ‘wine discoveries’ which sometimes ended in the wine list. They get involved with stock take and some of the administration duties. We run the operation together, it’s important to make everyone feel like one team, but also understanding all steps in the process.
It’s crucial to set goals and motivate the team to keep them engaged. I usually challenge them, setting sales targets.
What are some of the training programmes put in place for your sommelier team at Hakkasan?
The group holds many training programmes for all the departments. Specifically, for wine and sake, the group run the WSET courses ‘in house’ for waiting-staff (waiters, waitresses, bartenders and of course sommeliers). I’m part of the team who run these courses, we are Qualified Educators with the WSET, I love teaching.
Specifically, for the sommelier teams, the company found the Court of Master Sommeliers Courses and the Sisi Sake Sommelier Course.
Are you involved in the buying process? If yes, how do you select what wine you want to have on your list?
Yes, I’m involved with the buying process.
There is a different scenario for the selection process, we can be looking to fill a gap in the list, new addition or a substitute. Following this, we then organise the samples to taste and of course, they are tasting with food to make sure they complement our cuisine.
Cantonese cuisine it is not the easiest one to pair with wine and therefore every Tuesday we run a tasting session, where we try our new wines or different vintages with different dishes from the menu to make sure that they match with the food on offer.
What do sommeliers really look for in selecting new wines for their restaurants? Click here to know.
Does the packaging of a wine bottle matter when you're serving wine by the glass?
It does, there are some ‘funky’ labels that can change the perception of the customer about the wine, but I don’t think it has much influence when the wine is served on the table. Also, screw caps still not being really accepted by some customers.
What are the latest wine trends you've seen with the customers that come in?
In the last couple of years in London, I notice that English wines are becoming more popular among our guests, I do believe this is related to the ‘Brexit madness’. Many tourists are becoming more interested in it, which can also be related to customers interested in sustainability.
There is a growing concern about vegan wines, it is becoming more and more popular, customers are asking for friendly vegan wines.
I have noticed customers becoming more interested in small producers and biodynamic wines.
Click here to hear from Christine Parkinson - the woman who created the first wine list for Hakkasan in 2001.
What are some of the trends that you've noticed have remained the same over the past few years?
Classic regions always remain as a trend.
Countries like South Africa, Australia and probably Chile has been strong trends in the past years, they remain trendy.
What are your thoughts on award-winning wines? Do wines with medals end up doing better amongst customers?
I have been a judge for the Sommelier Wine Awards (SWA) for the past few years and I must confess that it is great fun, I really enjoy! The SWA medals have a great reputation in the industry and some customers know about it.
From a customer point of view, I believe that depends which medal, sometimes it can mislead the customer, probably because there are many medals around and not all customers are familiar with them. In fairness the best way for us to sell wine is understanding what our customers are looking for, find out if they are open to trying new things, to follow our recommendations, with a short brief from the customer we can suggest the best wines to match our food and guarantee a great experience.